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Could Bangladesh protests upend the government?

Protests shut down Bangladesh this week after a war-crimes tribunal sentenced a prominent Islamist politician to 90 years in prison.

Protests continued for a second day in Bangladesh after a war crimes tribunal investigating the country’s 1971 war of independence sentenced a top Islamist politician to 90 years in jail for crimes against humanity, raising worries about political stability.

Four people were killed in the clashes, including a child, and a number of others were injured today when opposition supporters for Ghulam Azam, the former chief of Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami, attacked police and set buses and trucks ablaze, prompting police to open fire.

“The leaders of both the [country’s political] alliances have said there is a danger of extraconstitutional intervention,” says Manzurul Ahsan Khan, adviser to the central committee of the Communist Party of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh, a country about the size of New York State and with a population of about 150 million, has a Muslim majority and a Constitution defining the nation as a secular democratic republic. Though the country was founded on secularism, it has swung between banning political activities of religious organizations and encouraging greater Islamization. Jamaat-e-Islami, which opposed the war of independence and has several leaders on trial for war crimes, still has strong influence among rural Bangladeshis.

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Much of the recent instability has been caused by the war crimes tribunal, set up in 2010 to look into charges of human rights abuses during the 1971 war with Pakistan. The government says 3 million died, but independent estimates put the death toll between 300,000 and 500,000, mostly at the hands of pro-Pakistan Islamist militia. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League-led government has arrested scores of alleged Islamist militants since taking power in 2009 and says the tribunal is needed to heal old wounds.

Including Monday’s verdict, the Bangladeshi war crimes tribunal has sentenced five of the 12 accused of war crimes, three of whom have been given the death penalty. Mr. Azam was found guilty on 61 counts, including murder, incitement, and complicity to crimes against humanity, but he “has not been given the death sentence, considering his age,” state prosecutor Syed Haider Ali told Reuters.

That upset both Azam’s supporters and critics.

Jamaat-e-Islami has called for a countrywide strike until Thursday, and analysts say the protests show no signs of letting up, as another verdict is expected tomorrow.

“The pro-secular forces are upset by the verdict of the court. Ghulam Azam is a symbol of anti-Bangladesh forces and collaborators who conspired against Bangladesh,” Shantanu Majumder, a political scientist at the University of Dhaka, told the Monitor.

“It has gone against the expectation of the nation, which obtained independence through liberation war,” Mr. Majumder says.

Protests over previous verdicts also turned violent.

Pro-secular Bangladeshi youths, who took to the streets in February to demand capital punishment for all the war criminals shortly after the tribunal gave out its first verdicts, have once again returned to the streets to occupy Dhaka’s main intersection at Shahbag.

“We have rejected this [Monday’s] verdict,” says Imran Sarkar, leader of the youth movement, as he stands at the intersection. In February, protesters at Shahbag also demanded Jamaat-e-Islami be banned as a political party and proposed boycotting different establishments patronized by the party.

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The ruling Awami League has recently been losing popularity, facing corruption charges against its ministers, criticism over the controversial war crimes trial process, and its position against the opposition’s call for an independent interim government to handle upcoming elections.

Some analysts worry the tensions could push Bangladesh’s democratic gains backward.

The protests, which have repeatedly shut down the country, have hurt the country’s garment industry, as the industry reels from a series of high-profile disasters. One of the largest garment exporters to Western markets, Bangladesh estimates it lost some $500 million in orders to India alone in recent weeks because of blockades and shutdowns.

Wendy Sherman, the US undersecretary for political affairs, expressed concern over Bangladesh’s repeated shutdowns during her visit in May. “I worry about a cycle of violence that shuts down a city of millions on what seems like a daily basis,” she told the New Age, a Bangladeshi newspaper. 

Jamaat-e-Islami has criticized the tribunal for failing to maintain international standards and charged that the court proceedings are a way to target political opponents, rather than mete out justice. Though the government denies this, of the 10 people indicted on charges of war crimes, eight are from the Jamaat-e-Islami party and its ally, the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.